SETI, Cutbacks, and Earth's "Out-of-Office" Message

"That we are the only part of the cosmos possessing what we are pleased to call mind is so earth-centred a supposition, that it recalls the other earth-centred view once so devoutly held, that our little globe was the point about which the whole company of heaven was good enough to turn. Indeed, there was much more reason to think that then, than to think this now, for there was at least the appearance of turning, whereas there is no indication that we are sole denizens of all we survey, and every inference that we are not." -Percival Lowell, 1895. Lowell argued that there was a system of canals on Mars, built by a long-dead species.

Lowell was also the first to theorize the existence of Pluto, which isn't even a planet anymore, so screw that guy.

In 1924, Mars passed closer to Earth than it had in recorded history. This happened to coincide with the dawn of the radio age, which got some folks thinking. “You know what we should do,” some folks thought, “we should ask the whole world to be quiet for a few days, and listen for any radio signals that may be coming from Mars.” The result was National Radio Silence Day, organized by a friend of Percival Lowell named David Peck Todd.

(Lowell had died eight years earlier, from a stroke brought on by prolonged fantasticness — seriously, do not read the man’s Wikipedia page unless you want to feel like a lazy piece of garbage.)

For the duration of the Mars flyby, the US government shut off all high-powered radio towers for five minutes every hour, and encouraged all private broadcasters to do the same. Meanwhile, a radio receiver sat two miles in the air on a dirigible, using the quiet periods to search the sky for Martians.

They didn’t find squat, which was to be a recurring theme of the movement they had just created: the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. The letters are capital because of science.

The movement got an official home in 1984, with the creation of the SETI Institute. This was National Radio Silence Day writ large, with a radio telescope array instead of a single receiver, a contant vigil instead of five-minutes bursts, and the ground instead of a dirigible. For more than twenty-five years, SETI has monitored for abnormal signals, and analyzed them for indication that they came from intelligent life. If you’ve seen the movie read the book “Contact,” you get the idea.

Those twenty-five years came to an abrupt end last week, when the Institute abruptly announced that its funding had run out in a sudden, abrupt fashion. We here at Analog Nation wanted to take a few moments to address this development.

Q: What exactly is being shut down here? A: State and federal budget cuts have left SETI without enough scratch to operate their array of radio telescopes at the Hat Creek Radio Astronomy Laboratory in Northern California. The facility will be offline until funding can be restored.

Q: God, is there anything California won’t ruin? A: Sadly no, there is not.

Q: Had SETI made any progress before the down-shutting? Do we have leads on possible aliens? A: The short answer is no, depending on what level of conspiracy theory you’re comfortable with. But the timing stinks, because NASA’s Kepler space telescope recently picked up more than 1,200 possible planetary objects that would make key observation targets. Every day that SETI is down is another day that we aren’t discovering our future overlords.

Q: Overlords? A: Well, I mean, probably.

Q: Still, what are the odds that after thousands of years of human civilization, the signals start appearing while this thing has gone dark? A: The girl always calls the instant you walk away from the phone. Always. Hell, if anything, this could be seen as a clever way to induce contact. They will send us a message of dire importance the instant we’re not paying attention. Perhaps even right this very moment! The odds of this are surprisingly high, given the laws of TV/movie hijinks. All we need to do is hit the answering machine when SETI is back online.

Q: Speaking of which, how much money do they need to get back on their feet? A: SETI director Jill Tarter hopes to raise $5 million to sustain the program over the next two years.

Q: Not to speak for other people’s money, but doesn’t this kind of have Bill Gates’ name written up one side and down another? That guy sneezes more than five mil. A: Normally I’d say yes, but Paul Allen has already donated significant sums to SETI, and things between those two are weird. Personally, I’m hoping some of the social media billionaire kids get involved. Come on, Zuckerberg — we’ll let you change Earth’s relationship status whenever you want.

Q: Oh hey! You know what they should do to raise money? They should totally use Kickstarter. A: Kickstarter’s great and all, but if I get one more of those things from my friends I’m going to light the Internet on fire.

Q: But— A: On. Fire.

Q: So this Mars flyby in 1924, when is the next time that’s happening? A: Actually, Mars passed even closer in 2003, but it won’t happen again until August of 2287.

Q: Stop it. Really? A: That's the honest-to-goodness number. You can plot out all Mars oppositions through the year 2934, if you want.

Q: Yikes. A: I know.

Q: Alright then, how do we fix this? What can we do until SETI is operational again? Should we all start writing down any possible alien signals we hear coming from the sky? A: Well, if anyone has a big radio receiver, I have a dirigible I’m not using.